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France Brokers a Mediterranean Union

After ironing out differences with the European Union, French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to launch his proposed Union for the Mediterranean in July. But skeptics say the union has been watered down and will have a monumental task of uniting European and non-European states along the Mediterranean rim. What are the motives behind the French proposal?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy first proposed a Mediterranean Union during his election campaign last year. His original idea envisioned an economic, political and cultural partnership exclusive to states bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Italy and Spain.

The proposal, dubbed UMed, immediately ran into opposition. Countries such as Germany criticized France for excluding northern Europe. Others saw Paris trying to supersede E.U. foreign policy and pursue economic gains outside its framework.

Some saw the proposal duplicating existing E.U. structures, such as the 1995 Barcelona structure that promoted the Middle East peace process but stumbled after the terror attacks against the United States in 2001.

Boston University's French affairs expert Edouard Bustin says many Europeans were suspicious. "France would have been significantly the largest economy involved in the deal. Now, with the addition of Germany, that's quite a different story. And perhaps this was indeed one way of creating a space in which France's influence would be larger than it would be in a broader context,! says Bustin. "And you might say that this is a neo-Gaullist idea because when [French] General [Charles] de Gaulle was projecting what became the Franco-African Community [in the French colonies of Africa after World War II, General de Gaulle's reading of the situation is reported to have been that Africa mattered to France because Africa was the one part of the world where France could still be, relatively speaking, a great power."

Competing Interests

France's influence in its former North African colonies has waned in recent years. Some analysts say the United States, China and Japan have been courting resource-rich countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria for economic and security cooperation.

St. John's University African expert Azzedine Layachi says UMed would have to outdo the competition. "The Americans have been working out security arrangements with all North African states. But the North Africans also want some kind of economic arrangement. The Moroccans were able to get a free trade agreement. This is the only free trade agreement in North Africa with the United States. The Algerians would like the Americans, who have been investing heavily for decades in the oil fields in Algeria, to invest in the non-oil sector," says Layachi. "What the Americans wanted was to help the North Africans establish their common market so that the Americans would have a huge market to deal with. But the political differences between the North African states, especially between Morocco and Algeria, were too immense to overcome."

Despite the obstacles, some experts say Paris may have felt compelled to carve out a niche for itself in the region. But they note that France, which sees itself as North Africa's gatekeeper to Europe, must now convince prospective UMed members that the union can offer what others could not. This might prove difficult in the case of Turkey, which has shunned the idea.

The Turkish Question

Many analysts argue that UMed was intended to prevent Turkey from becoming a full member of the European Union. Among them is Boston University's Edouard Bustin. "One of the problems was that when Monsieur Sarkozy started talking about his Mediterranean Union, he almost in the same breath mentioned that this would be a more adequate framework in which to associate Turkey, meaning that Turkey does not belong in Europe, although he agrees now that negotiations for Turkey's admission to the European Union should continue -- except that Turkey figured out that the Mediterranean Union project was just disguised as an alternative to membership in the E.U. And so, they boycotted the idea."

Soner Cagaptay of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy agrees that UMed might have been designed to block Turkey's E.U. accession. But he says there are other drivers behind what he calls "Club Med". "This is really not a union. It's really more of a club. In other words, it doesn't sound like the strong centralized government of the E.U., but it's a club to which entry and exit are easier. So not everybody around the Mediterranean has to become a member. This is a strategy that has two aims: One is to circumvent Turkey's E.U. accession," says Cagaptay. "And the other is to cooperate with North African countries to prevent illegal immigration to France. And I think 'containment' is a good word because it [i.e., UMed] contains Turkey's accession and contains migration from North African Arab countries to France."

Cagaptay notes that illegal immigration is particularly important to France because of its large, unassimilated Arab community. He says UMed provides an avenue to boost cooperation on immigration with Arab Mediterranean nations. It also offers those countries badly-needed economic opportunities.

Azzedine Layachi of St. John's University says, "This might be an opportunity for them to probably get what they wouldn't get otherwise. And they can put together their efforts and try to negotiate some kind of arrangement with the Europeans as a group. So the North Africans are just waiting to see what the French are going to put on the table."

A Watered Down Mediterranean Union?

But most analysts say President Sarkozy's original vision has been watered down. They argue that E.U. intervention has made UMed available to more members in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East while making it harder to bridge the differences among them. Soner Cagaptay of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says, "There will be richer countries not interested [in UMed]. There will be countries such as Turkey, which will probably say, 'no' to it. A number of countries around the Mediterranean will join fully. A number will join on some programs and a number will not join. So this will not be the perfect pan-Mediterranean union that Sarkozy envisioned because it won't have all the Mediterranean states. And because it will have all of the E.U.'s 27 members, the more members you have, the more difficult it becomes to make major decisions. So this will be a more diluted version."

Many experts see great potential in the Union for the Mediterranean to streamline Europe's foreign policy in the region and bridge the East-West divide. But they caution that gaps in development, wealth and democratic rule among its prospective members will be difficult to overcome.